Thornton was writing to attendees following a meeting between Defra, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and halal certifying bodies, which was set up to discuss the issue of trace contamination in halal products.
The meeting, which took place on 14 March, gave government the opportunity to brief the faith communities on its policy regarding trace contamination. Some at the meeting expressed strong concern about the levels trace detection was set at (1%) and said any level of pork or horse DNA was unacceptable.
However, Defra and the FSA said: "Officials clarified that 1% was the lowest reliable level of detection for all UK-accredited laboratories. It was a pragmatic level to distinguish between gross contamination through design or gross negligence and trace levels of carry-over during meat processing from one species to another." They added that they understood no level of contamination was acceptable.
A certifier then asked that, if pork DNA could be found in halal products, then there should be concern of any non-halal slaughtered meat entering halal meat supplies. Defra said: "Ministers were clear that responsibility for the integrity of halal products lay with industry and the halal certifying bodies and that the law is clear that responsibility runs throughout the food chain."
It further added that, while the government had a regulatory role regarding the enforcement of rules, such as misleading labelling, halal food businesses and certifying bodies were responsible for checking that products they supplied were what they claimed to be.
In response to this, one certifier said that it was not right for the endorsers (certifying bodies) to bear the brunt of the contamination issue and said testing should lie with meat processors. However, Defra said the law was clear about the responsibility of all food businesses: "They should be proactive about testing for meat authenticity to provide reassurance to those wishing to buy halal food."
Meanwhile, another certifier said it was wholly down to the endorsers to bare the brunt of mistakes, as it was their job to ensure standards were kept.
Despite this, a representative from a halal organisation strongly urged that it should be the government’s responsibility to deal with the problem. It was his belief that halal was defined in statute, therefore ensuring halal standards would be enforced by the FSA.
In response, the FSA said that any guidance produced by the FSA was information provided to local authorities about halal foods and the Muslim community "and did not represent a legal requirement".
Several attendees then said it was down to the Muslim community to define what halal was, but others felt that it was up to both the government and the certifiers.
Government ended the meeting and said it was important to continue dialogue afterwards and invited attendees to write with their views.